Those Tesla engineers wait for no one in their desire to push the automotive envelope. Go Tesla!
In this case, the result is Autopilot in their version 7.0 update of the award-winning Tesla Model S running software. This will enable the car to automatically steer, switch lanes, parallel park, and help keep you from crashing using the car's sensor suite, and getting safely to the next Tesla recharging station (also predicted by science fiction!). A nifty visualization of what the car is thinking will be presented on the instrument cluster.
(Tesla autopilot test drive)
We drove, or rather operated the system because you’re actually much closer to a “systems operator” than a driver in this case, in about 20 minutes of New York City traffic. Most people, when faced with the chaotic trash soup known as New York City traffic for the first time, instantly back out and make up some meek excuse about wanting to take a taxi instead. So it was very brave of Tesla to have this be the very first place we’d try it.
It’s easy enough to get the Autopilot system going. Make sure you’re in a place with clearly marked lanes (no wide, vast expanses of blank blacktop for you, but if you’ve got that why are you letting the computer drive anyway? Who makes that sort of decision? How did you come obtain a Tesla? WHO MAKES THESE HORRIBLE CHOICES?), and makes sure your foot isn’t on the brake.
The system will bring you to a halt if you’ve got it on already, but if you want to turn it on, you need to be moving a bit. Under 18 miles per hour, you’ll need a car in front of you to get the system to turn on. Over that, and as long as there’s lanes, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem.
I was vouchsafed a glimpse of this present reality long ago, thanks to science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. He wrote about autonomous cars and the responsibility of human drivers in his 1976 novel Imperial Earth:
As the beautiful old car cruised in almost perfect silence under the guidance of its automatic controls, Duncan tried to see something of the terrain through which she was passing. The spaceport was 50 km from the city - no one had yet invented a noiseless rocket - and the four-lane highway bore a surprising amount of traffic. Duncan could count at least 20 vehicles of different types and even though they were all moving in the same direction, the spectacle was somewhat alarming.
"I hope all those other cars are on automatic," he said anxiously.
Washington looked a little shocked. "Of course," he said. "It's been a criminal offense for at least a hundred years to drive manually on a public highway. But we still have occasional psychopaths to kill themselves and other people..."
(Read more about Arthur C. Clarke's autonomous cars)